Next thing, they’ll be telling us how to breathe

The staff in my local Sainsbury’s are friendly and courteous enough. All the same, it’s not as though I keep a record of how many smiles they give me, or whether or not they’ve used a sufficiently welcoming tone when asking for my Nectar card. The fact is, I don’t have to because someone else – their managers, I presume – are doing this on behalf of customers like me. Right now the shelf-stackers are 100% me-friendly whereas the checkout staff – rude bastards – only come in at 83%.  I know this because it’s on a sheet of A4, laminated and propped up right in front of every checkout worker, alongside a list of values they need to project and behaviours they must adopt (summary: smile till your face aches, then smile just that little bit more).

Every time I see this it embarrasses and saddens me in equal measure. I almost want to tell whoever’s serving me “look, you don’t need to grin like a maniac. Tell me to fuck off – I won’t complain”. Of course, I’ve never done this, as I imagine it would freak people out. Nonetheless, to tell the truth, I’m more than a little freaked out at being served by people who, rather than simply being allowed to get on with their jobs, are forced to stare at aggressive missives ordering them to be really fucking happy or else.

I thought of this when reading in the Guardian of a list of words staff who work in Jamie Oliver’s are meant to use when describing the specials. As you’d expect, it’s words such as “scrummy”, “dollop”, “magic” and “proper rustic”. It’s all rather 1990s, and somewhat cringe. I don’t know whether you’re obliged to use a mockney accent when reading out what’s on offer, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It does make me uncomfortable. I understand that waiting staff are, to a certain extent, marketing the food, and that you market particular items using particular words, but still. This feels over the top. Moreover, as with the Sainsbury’s smile commandments, you get the impression of an organisation in which “the little people” aren’t trusted or given the autonomy to use their own words and facial expressions. So many over-familiar words and gestures, so little actual humanity.

It’s not as though I like rubbish customer service. I don’t enjoy it when people are unclear or rude to me. All the same, I would genuinely prefer it if whoever makes these decisions about what frontline staff should and shouldn’t do could have a little more respect for the staff themselves. I want respect myself, but I want to have interactions with people who are respected. Instead I pop out to buy a loaf of bread and some Monster Munch and end up feeling complicit in the wilful humiliation of whoever’s ringing things up at the till. I don’t want people to be ordered to grin at me! I’m a miserable sod! I don’t deserve it!

Perhaps I am over-reacting. I don’t know. Let me know in the comments. Then I will write things up and laminate the final list of “positive behaviors in response to the Sainsbury’s positive behaviours list”, and carry this with me whenever I go shopping. Seriously, when you’re as socially inept as me, it’s vital not to mess these things up.

8 thoughts on “Next thing, they’ll be telling us how to breathe

  1. I love you.
    I used to work at Boots, and the humiliation and degradation we were contractually obliged to suffer every day was unbearable. Policy on dealing with aggressive customers (methadone and addicts) and fraudulent refund requesters got so oppressive you are no longer a person with rights of your own, just a drone programmed to smile, sell and cash up. I got accused by a customer of taking her money, and though I was polite, smiled, helpful and above all, totally innocent, she complained and got £50 on a gift card and I got an investigation, which is worse than a police investigation with witnesses and just more unpleasantness.
    Made me hate the company and I left.
    Retail sucks.

    1. I’m so sorry you had that to face! A couple of months ago I witnessed someone being patronising and rude to a woman on the checkout at a charity shop. I know this should never happen but I was extra-outraged since this poor woman wasn’t even getting paid (thankfully everyone else in the shop was outraged, too!).

  2. Agree, totally. This reminds me of a time when I used to frequent a branch of Mucky D’s for a crack-of-dawn, pre-work coffee.
    That place awards staff stars for their name badges, depending on seniority.
    I vividly recall one such senior drone handing me my polystyrene cup of caffeine while intoning “Thank you, please call again,” with all the vitality of a talking doll.
    Then she handed me my change and gave me another “Thank you, please call again,” in exactly the same monotone.
    Christ, it wasn’t even 9am. If she sounded that hollowed out and corporately Stepforded, what would she be like by the end of her shift?
    Poor cow. I don’t want people in shops or restaurants to give me a script. I don’t them to have to smile if they don’t feel like it. I do want their employers to respect their staff and trust them to be able to interact with other human beings!

    1. My partner used to work for McDonalds – but assembling burgers rather than front of house. He claims it was because “I looked too miserable and ugly to greet the customer”. I wouldn’t agree, obvs, but it seems like he had a lucky escape (unless you also had to smile at the chips).

  3. Cheer up love it might never ‘appen – an instruction that was issued to me with a fair amount of frequency in my younger days. I actually am quite a cheerful person but choose not to walk down Oxford Street grinning like a twit so why I didn’t tell them to F off I don’t know! Poor sods in Sainsburys, I’m so glad I can sit at my desk and scowl!

  4. This is why I love self-service tills. I’ve done my share of waitressing in the past so I know what’s expected from “servers” in terms of smiling, bowing, scraping, pandering etc.. (Add to that the “banter”, at best, that women in such roles are expected to endure.) I don’t want any part of it.

    1. I was in Asda last week who obviously have a similar policy. The young gentleman at the checkou said “Are you ok?” as I approached, not “Hello” “Do you need help packing your bags?” which I also hate btw, but “Are you ok?” I honestly felt like saying “Well, I’m absolutely shattered from being up three times during the night with a baby who’s teething, hence my unwashed hair and lack of make up. Oh and my post natal depression’s really affecting my mood today hence the large bar of chocolate which will only make me feel fatter than I already am.” Of course, I didn’t say any of those, I mumbled “fine thanks” and avoided eye contact…

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